Costa Rica’s voters ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a sign of hope against a rising tide of populist, anti-trade sentiment in Latin America — and the United States. “In short, this is not the time for Latin America to abandon free trade agendas,” Gregg says.
Related to Sam Gregg’s Acton Commentary today, “Free Trade: Latin America’s Last Hope?” I pass along this ENI news item: “Growing rich-poor gap is new ‘slavery’, say Protestant leaders.”
Globalization and free trade are the causes of a new class of worldwide slavery, say the ecumenical officials. Citing the foundational 2004 Accra Confession, Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, says that “an even more pernicious form of human enslavement is being wrought on millions through the process of neoliberal globalisation that is driving a dramatic and growing wedge between the rich and the poor.”
These statements come at a critical time in the history of the Reformed ecumenical movement. The Reformed Ecumenical Council and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches have joined this week to become one organization:
Reformed church groupings agree to create new global body
Port of Spain (ENI). The World Alliance of Reformed Churches has agreed to unite with the Reformed Ecumenical Council to create a new “global entity” that will group 80 million Reformed Christians. “This is a truly, truly important moment,” said WARC president the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick after the alliance’s executive committee, meeting in Trinidad, voted unanimously on 22 October to unite with the REC, whose executive committee had agreed to the proposal in March. The Geneva-based WARC has 75 million members in 214 churches in 107 countries, while the Grand Rapids, Michigan-headquartered REC has 12 million members belonging to 39 churches in 25 countries. Of the REC’s member churches, 27 also belong to WARC. [ENI-07-0815]
It’s not clear at this time if the conditions laid out in 2005 are those under which the union has taken place. This merger is significant in many ways, not least of which is the requirement of the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church that its Synod “shall send delegates to Reformed ecumenical synods in which the Christian Reformed Church cooperates with other denominations which confess and maintain the Reformed faith” (Article 50). Citing Calvin once in awhile and promulgating platitudes about the sovereignty of God doesn’t mean you are Reformed.
In response to concerns from member churches from the global North that the Accra Confession is not sufficiently doctrinal, Rev. Setri Nyomi responds, “The Reformed family recognises the sovereignty of God … We do not separate whether God is sovereign in the mundane and in the spiritual realm. Therefore our stance on social issues is consistent with the doctrinal claim of sovereignty.”
Quite frankly the WARC leaderships rhetoric about income and wealth disparity as a “more pernicious form of human enslavement” is offensive on a number of levels besides its doctrinal spuriousness. It’s offensive to those who actually are slaves today (sex trafficking is a huge global issue). And it’s insulting to those whose historical legacy involves victimization by the practice of chattel slavery.
WARC is more than happy to talk about “slavery” in material terms, identifying anything other than complete egalitarianism with injustice and bondage. But the one kind of slavery you won’t hear WARC discuss is the sense in which it is put forward most prominently in the Scriptures: bondage to corruption and sin in a personally and individually relevant way.
When Christ said, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,” he didn’t have globalization in mind.
In answer to the query in the headline of this week’s Acton Commentary, “Who’s Afraid of Free Trade?”, I submit the following: the ecumenical movement. Note the following news item from Ecumenical News International:
Geneva (ENI). Faith groups have joined activists around the globe in calling for fair, equitable and just trade policies while urging churches to join a Trade Week of Action that seeks to promote alternatives to the global system of commerce. “During this week, the churches and other organizations will tell the world that enforced free trade is causing poverty and that there are viable alternatives,” said Linda Hartke, coordinator of the Geneva-based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, which has organized the 14-21 October Trade Week of Action. “When the systems we have created to buy, sell and share goods cause hunger and suffering then these systems are wrong. Every voice counts, and every action makes a difference,” Hartke told Ecumenical News International. [ENI-07-0798]
Society is changing as economic freedom and diversification gradually creep into the Middle East. Dr. Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, explores the effects of free trade on nations including Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates and, in turn, the effect those nations are having on their neighbors.
The diversification of economies, notably the development of new products and services for export, allows nations to grow out of reliance on oil production as the main source of capital. The emerging economies create an entrepreneurial atmosphere open to all and encourages foreign investment. The result is a rise out of poverty and more open foreign relations.
And how does this affect coffee supply? If a premium is available for fair-trade coffee, shouldn’t other growers enter the market to take advantage of it until the price of coffee is bid down to market levels, leaving total producer take–baseline coffee price plus premium–where it stood before? Such a scenario would also raise distributional questions. If higher coffee prices attract market entrants, then coffee-growing nations will shift resources into that sector, which might be good for grower incomes, but could potentially inhibit the development of other economic activities.
Not to take anything away from the stated goals of the fair-trade movement or the well-meaning consumers who wish to do better by farmers in poor countries. Still, in any economic process, it’s often difficult to foresee the second- and third-order effects of a decision. It will be interesting to observe how growth in fair-trade products changes the structure of markets for targeted commodities.
These sorts of questions and concerns are at the heart of my past criticisms of the fair trade movement.
To the extent that fair trade certifiers are simply acting as agents to inform consumers and guarantee certain practices, to which coffee buyers can freely respond either affirmatively or negatively, there’s no real complaint. Fair trade becomes a boutique item that has to compete in the free marketplace.
But to the extent that the fair trade movement reflects a more thoroughgoing critique of market forces and the “fairness” or justice of market prices, it becomes more problematic. It becomes an entirely different paradigmatic alternative to a system of free trade.
You’ve essentially replaced market prices with arbitrarily determined prices, which are subjectively determined to be “fair.” Compare this with the traditional and classic scholastic understanding of a “just” price as the market value in the absence of any and all fraud and conspiracy.
The Free Exchange blog piece points out all sorts of negative consequences of the change from “just” to “fair” prices, not least of which is the increasing saturation of an already saturated market because of artificial subsidization of a particular commodity. Furthermore, it’s hard to see how it makes good economic and environmental stewardship to subsidize and promote the growth and production of a commodity of which we already have too much.
For more on the disconnect between the intentions and the consequences of the fair trade movement, check out this study, “Does Fair Trade Coffee Help the Poor?”
The May 16 Independent is guest-edited by the ubiquitous Bono and sports the RED brand–another Bono project where a share of the profits from the mag will be donated to fighting AIDS and poverty in Africa. (Other companies with RED brands include Converse, American Express, Armani, and GAP.) See the issue for yourself (where you will find a critique of subsidies, as well as Nelson Mandela giving props to RED as well as an interview with commedian Eddie Izzard–two men who much too rarely share a marquee).
What is of special interest to PowerBloggers is the article by Bob Geldof, founder of Live8, titled: Aid isn’t the answer. Africa must be allowed to trade its way out of poverty. This is the same Bob Geldof who has been lobbying for huge aid packages for twenty years, the same Bob Geldof who said “We must do something, even if it doesn’t work.” It quite something that this same fella who wrote the following:
In a time of weak world leadership, when the WTO negotiators are failing so miserably, let us remind their bosses – Bush, Chirac, Merkel et al – that we agree with them when they argue that, long term, “aid isn’t the answer”, and that the continent of Africa and its people must trade its way into the global market and sit where it rightfully belongs, negotiating as equals with the rest of us.
As always, I have no interest in questioning the intentions of Bob and Co.–I think they are the noblest of intentions, and I think more people ought to share their zeal for the poor. But could this admission that long term aid isn’t the answer mean that projects like the ONE Campaign are losing their luster? Or are people realizing that governments can’t solve poverty, but maybe the corrective is individual charity and free trade amongst free peoples?
And it is also worth noting that the cover art for the mag includes “Gen. 1:27″–I will save you the trouble of looking it up: “God created man in his own image; in the divine image he created them; male and female he created them.” I am curious how far Bono has parsed out the implications of this statement, as this verse lays the foundation for many of Acton’s economic arguments (for example, see here).
The NYT piece passes on the allegations of numerous immigrant workers at garment factories in Jordan that they have been lured into the country, had their passports taken, and then forced to work long hours for illegally low wages. There’s an implicit critique of the free market system, and large retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, in the article, blaming them for the de facto conditions of slavery.
I, in turn, examine the culpability at various levels, including the responsibility of the factory owners, the duties of the Jordanian government, as well as the “unique ability for American companies to use their economic leverage to push for an end to foreign labor exploitation.”
It seems that it may be possible. An interesting article from yesterday’s International Herald Tribune:
Danielle Scache tries to avoid using the term “capitalism” in her economics class because it has negative connotations in France.
Instead, she teaches her high school students about the market economy, a slightly less controversial term she started using last year after a two-month internship at the dairy giant Danone. That was an experience that did away with more than one of her own prejudices, she said.
“I was surprised to see that people actually enjoyed working in a company,” said Scache, who is 59. “Some of them were more enthusiastic than many teachers I know.”
“You know,” she confided with a laugh, “in France we often think of companies, especially multinationals, as a place of constant conflict between employees and management.”
This view of bosses and workers as engaged in an endless, antagonistic tug-of-war goes some way toward explaining the two-month rebellion against a new labor law.
Read the whole thing for an interesting look into the state of economic education in France.
I was intereviewed for this article in yesterday’s New York Times, but I apparently didn’t make the cut. Nevertheless, in “Fair Prices for Farmers: Simple Idea, Complex Reality,” Jennifer Alsever does an excellent job bringing to light some of the dangers that are inherent with external and artificial adjustments to the price mechanism.
In the case of the fair trade food movement, the price floor is set artificially at a certain amount, determined to meet or surpass the subsistence needs of the local farmer. For coffee, this is currently set at $1.26 per pound by the fair trade community.
Alsever writes, “Despite good intentions, most consumers who shop according to their social convictions don’t know how much of their money makes it to the people they hope to help. Critics say too many fair trade dollars wind up in the pockets of retailers and middlemen, including nonprofit organizations.”
The problem is that the fair-trade certification organizations themselves, and also the retailers, can add several layers of increase into the price of a fair trade commodity. We might say that the fair trade consumer, who is presumably already willing to pay more than the market price, has a greater level of acceptable price elasticity.
TransFair USA, the certifying body in the US, “generated $1.89 million in licensing fees from companies that used the logo. It also spent $1.7 million on salaries, travel, conferences and publications for the 40-employee organization.”
“Farmers often receive very little,” said Lawrence Solomon, managing director of the Energy Probe Research Foundation, a Canadian firm that analyzes trade and consumer issues. “Often fair trade is sold at a premium, but the entire premium goes to the middlemen.”
Of course, these are the self-professed middlemen who cut out the layers of middlemen under a market based, free trade system. Those were the “bad” middlemen, while TransFair apparently represents the “good” sort of middleman.
One other aspect of this tinkering with the price mechanism is that the fair trade movement does nothing to recognize the reality reflected by purchasing power parity (PPP). So, writes Alsever, “a price that is fair in one country may not be in another. In Brazil, ‘$1.26 per pound for coffee is a fortune,’ said Kevin Knox, a coffee consultant in Boulder, Colo. ‘In the forest in the mountains of Mexico, the money barely is enough to justify doing it. Their yields are small, and the costs of production are higher.'”
These are just a few of the problems that arise when people try to artificially manage the price mechanism. When it is allowed to do its job, the market price of something provides a lot of good information. It can tell us, for example, that the supply of coffee far outstrips the demand, and so some coffee growers should think about getting into another product or industry. It would be in their best interests to do so, and the best interests of all of us, so that the world doesn’t end up with too much coffee and too little of something else.
The economic ignorance behind the fair trade movement leads me to believe that it really is just a sort of passing fad, especially popular among naïve church groups, which will at some point be replaced by far more effective methods of alleviating poverty around the world, such as micro-enterprise development (for more on this, see groups like Five Talents, Opportunity International, and Kiva). It’s hard to see real staying power behind a movement that thinks the answer to the reality of poor coffee farmers is simply to subsidize the production of commodities of which we already have an oversupply.
For more on some of the emotional and psychological reasons people are willing to pay more for fair trade items, see “Absolution in Your Cup: The real meaning of Fair Trade coffee,” by Kerry Howley. The fair trade movement currently lack the ability to enforce their pricing schemes through the coercive power of the state, so they must rely on other tactics.
Jay Richards’ previous post on Richard Rahn’s article “Not Rocket Science” illustrates Huxley’s famous statement about a fact destroying a theory.
Jay quotes Rahn’s lists of the politicians and development experts who support increased foreign aid.
It’s no longer just politicians and economists. Bono’s One Campaign is designed to get the developed nations to contribute 1 percent of their GDP to foreign aid for the poorest countries. No doubt Bono and many other supporters have good intentions. But good intentions don’t fight poverty. Economic opportunity, entrepreneurship, and free trade do.
Using the Heritage Foundation/WSJ “Index of Economic Freedom” Rahn lists example after example of the success of countries who liberalized their economies, and failures of those that haven’t.
The economically freest societies are the most prosperous, and the most economically repressive societies are the poorest.
Ireland 30 years ago was among the poorest countries in Europe. It then made a major shift toward freeing up its economy — e.g., its maximum corporate tax rate is only 12 1/2 percent (it ranks No. 3 out of 157 countries in the index). As a result, it now has the second-highest per capita income in Europe and is far ahead of the old leaders like Germany (No. 19) and France (No. 44). (Note, when I refer to per capita income, I do so using the Purchasing Power Parity measure which accounts for local price differences.)
In Eastern Europe, Estonia is economically the freest (No. 7), and Romania the least free (No. 92), though the latter is now making progress. Both countries started out at roughly the same level 16 years ago, but now Estonia has almost twice the per capita income of Romania. Much of the credit for Estonia being the most successful transition country goes to its brilliant and able free-market former prime minister, Mart Laar.
On the other hand, the biggest recipients of development aid over the last quarter-century, for the most part, have gone nowhere economically. Egypt (No. 129), the biggest recipient of development aid in the last quarter-century, is a prime example, with a per capita income about 5 percent of Ireland’s.
Despite the evidence you will continue to hear Kofi Annan and the others clamoring for more aid and more generosity. Instead of aid, they should start asking to reduce tariffs and subsidies and encourage and assist developing countries to set up market economies guided by the rule of law.
Hernando de Soto’s book The Mystery of Capital illustrates that what is needed is not more aid, but the ability to turn assets into capital and less government regulation and interference in the economy.
The One Campaign is right to care about the poor in Africa and elswhere. Perhaps if we could get Bono’s good intentions and passion behind sound economics we might see some real change.